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What are Shakespeare's Romance Plays?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 23, 2024
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Towards the end of his career, William Shakespeare, the English playwright, moved away from plays that could be easily defined as comic or tragic. His final works combined elements of both genres, and are commonly called “tragi-comedy” or romance plays. Four plays are usually classified by experts under the romance heading: Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest.

These plays have several features in common, and in all four, a long standing conflict or injustice is resolved. Unlike in the tragedies, potentially tragic endings are avoided by redemption or penitence of a flawed character. Romance plays often feature supernatural events, such as the use of magic, and extraordinary events, such as shipwrecks, reuniting of long-lost families and improbable disguises. Unlike the comedies, where endings come about as happy compromises between extremes, romance endings often seem staged or contrived to make every character as happy as possible.

The first of Shakespeare’s plays included in this group is Pericles, believed to be written around 1608. In the play, Pericles is a prince who sails around the world hiding from a wicked, life-long enemy. He marries a foreign princess but is led to believe she dies in childbirth. Pericles is later told by a treacherous friend that his daughter Marina has also died. Through an improbable series of events, including a visitation from the Goddess Diana, he learns that his wife and daughter are actually still alive, and the family is finally reunited.

Cymbaline was changed from its original designation of a tragedy. The story involves Imogen, the daughter of King Cymbeline, who goes into hiding after being falsely accused of adultery. She meets up with her older brothers, who had been kidnapped 20 years before by a man named Belarius in retaliation for his unjust banishment by the king. At the conclusion of the play, nearly every character comes forward with information leading to the discovery of Imogen and Belarius’ innocence and, furthermore, uncovering a plot by Cymbeline’s second wife to kill Imogen and place her own son on the throne. As a result, Imogen and her husband are reunited, peace is declared, and the twin sons are reunited with their family.

The Winter’s Tale is a redemption story set over two decades. King Leontes of Sicilia discovers too late the innocence of his wife Hermione, whom he accused of adultery with his friend King Polixenes of Bohemia. Sixteen years pass, and Leontes continues to mourn his wife and her child, whom he ordered killed. When Polixenes, King of Bohemia, objects to his son Florizel marrying a shepherdess named Perdita, the young couple flees to Sicilia. Strange events conspire to reveal Perdita as Leontes’ lost daughter, reunite Leontes with the magically resurrected Hermione, and join the kingdoms of Sicilia and Bohemia through the marriage of Perdita and Florizel.

In The Tempest — Shakespeare’s final play — Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan returns to power when a provident shipwreck deposits his traitorous brother Antonio on his magical island. The play is considered the most magic-oriented of the romances, as its setting is a magic-filled island populated by sprites, fairies, and a half-fish, half-human monster named Caliban. When Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, falls in love with one of the shipwrecked men, Prospero decides to abandon his magic and return to Milan. His brother repents his crimes and the whole company departs for Italy, leaving Caliban in charge of the island.

The romance plays are not to be taken as realistic, but are rather to be enjoyed for their lush settings and surprise twists. The poetry of the plays is considered by some to be Shakespeare’s most mature and beautiful. Experts are divided as to why Shakespeare left his popular tragedies behind to work in this field, and some scholars suggest he was merely following fashion, but that theory is not universal. Many scholars believe that Shakespeare was planning his retirement from the busy world of London, and through these works, sought a happy ending to his own life.

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Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for Language & Humanities. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.
Discussion Comments
By anon274739 — On Jun 13, 2012

What other poems are there that are romantic?

By anon143192 — On Jan 15, 2011

William Shakespeare was born on the 26th april, 1564 in Stratford Upon Avon. His mother was Mary Arden and his father, was John Shakespeare. William had four sisters and three brothers. Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway in 1582. Together they had a girl and twins.

He spent most of his life in Stratford, but worked in London with his plays. William introduced to us 'The Globe Theatre,' which before was called 'The Theatre.' He wrote all sorts of plays: histories, comedies, tragedies, romances and problems.

All actors were men, as women were not allowed to act in those times, so female parts were played by young boys with high pitched voices.

I hope you found my information helpful.

By ellis — On Nov 17, 2010

Shakespeare actually had three children: a daughter named Susanna and twins named Judith and Hamnet. Hamnet died in childhood. There is very little verified information about Shakespeare's life and family, which leads to many debates over whether he actually wrote his own plays and many other questions. Shakespeare's birthday and death are celebrated on the same day, April 23.

By chrisinbama — On Nov 17, 2010

@gardenturtle: William Shakespeare died in 1616. He was 52 years old. William never published his plays. His fellow actors, Henry Condell and John Hemminges, recorded his work as a dedication to Shakespeare in 1623. They published 36 of Shakespeare’s plays.

Shakespeare’s father, John, was a Stratford tanner and his mother, Mary, was the daughter of a wealthy farmer.

By alex94 — On Nov 17, 2010

@gardenturtle: We know that Shakespeare was born in April of 1564 but no one knows the exact date of birth. There are only two portraits of Shakespeare that are considered to be authentic. One is the engraving of Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout. It was published on the title page of the 1623 First Folio.

William married Anne Hathaway who was 8 years his senior. He and Anne had 8 children. William Shakespeare, one of our greatest literary figures, never attended any college or university.

It is said that Shakespeare wrote his first play, Henry VI, Part One between 1589 and 1590. He was around 25 years old at the time. He started writing the first of his over 150 sonnets at the age of 29.

By GardenTurtle — On Nov 17, 2010

I love these articles. I am looking for some more information on Shakespeare as a person, maybe about his family, etc.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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